Do you like fast-paced stories that leave you sitting on the edge of your seat? Do you enjoy fantastical tales full of secrets and suspense? If the answer is yes, then prepare to be swept away on an exciting adventure down the river Thames.
Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead works at his parents’ inn in Oxford, England, in a world very much like our own . . . and yet different. In Malcolm’s world, witches aren’t just the stuff of fairy tales, there are magical truth-telling instruments called alethiometers, and souls exist outside the body as talking animals called daemons.
Inquisitive and intelligent, Malcolm discovers that the nuns who live across the river are hiding a secret: a very special baby named Lyra. Malcolm is drawn to Lyra in ways he cannot explain and takes every opportunity to see her. When the river breaches its banks and floods the town, he barely manages to escape with the baby and a young kitchen maid called Alice. On their perilous journey downriver in Malcolm’s trusty canoe called La Belle Sauvage, the trio—along with their daemons—is pursued by a madman bent on revenge, as well as an organization determined to kidnap Lyra. Malcolm’s strength and courage are tested time and again in his mission to keep Lyra safe.
“Get in. Sit down there and take Lyra. Don’t move,” he said, and pulled back enough of the canopy for Alice to see the bow, and where to step and where to sit. He shoved Lyra at her, and she took her with firm arms, and then he pulled the canopy back over her and got in himself. There was so much water streaming over the grass that he was pretty sure this would work, and indeed La Belle Sauvage was straining at her mooring rope already, as if she sensed what Malcolm wanted.
A quick tug—the knot came loose-and Malcolm took the paddle and used it to keep her upright as she began to move, slowly at first and then faster and faster, down the grass slope towards the river.
But the river was coming up to meet them, and suddenly the little boat came free from the grass and surged forward.
They could only go one way. La Belle Sauvage sped like a dart over the mad river, down towards Port Meadow, towards the wild waste of water that was sweeping through Oxford, towards whatever lay beyond.(Pullman, 2017, p. 247-48)
Although I really enjoyed this book, I especially loved the second half of the story, which chronicles the kids’ daring escape during the flood and showcases their imagination and resourcefulness, as well as their ability to work together as a team. Being stuck on a canoe, with a baby, in an unfamiliar environment, for over a week, with bad guys chasing them, would be frightening. I kept asking myself, what would I do?
La Belle Sauvage is Volume One of The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman.
If you like this book and want to know more about Lyra as a young girl, you might enjoy Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy that includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Although La Belle Sauvage was written after the trilogy, the events in this story take place before we meet Lyra as a schoolgirl in The Golden Compass.